The Trial and Testimony of the Early Church

Begin counter with the Gateway Films/Vision Video logo RUSSELL: There is no choice when you are asked to deny the One. NIGEL: It turned into the prolonged battle . . . the might of the Roman Empire against the unarmed, fledgling Christian church. STEVE: It was a conflict that lasted for almost 300 years, and the results of this struggle have done more to shape our Western civilization and way of life and thinking than any other single force or influence. SERIES LOGO


NIGEL: It started with a peasant Galilean carpenter who told his unlettered group of followers to go out into the all the world, make disciples, and spread the word of the coming Kingdom of God. STEVE: A key development took place here in the Garden of Gethesmane. Here, Jesus had to decide if He would go forward and face the cross or turn back. He went forward. Later his followers, too, would have to decide if they were willing to bear their crosses as followers of Christ. In this program, we’ll be looking at the persecution of the early centuries of the church, and we will try to understand why this group, whose motto was love posed such a threat to the power of Rome. My colleagues, Russell, Jane and Nigel join us now from Lyon in France, a notable site of persecution for the early church. RUSSELL: Now, let’s set the record straight on one count. The Christians were not under constant persecution everywhere and all the time. JANE: No, the persecutions were sporadic and there were intervals in between. NIGEL: They varied in their intensity.


JANE: And they were not all empire-wide. In fact, most of them were localized. The first-empire wide persecution did not begin until the year 250. RUSSELL: Many did pay with their lives. And some sought out what they considered to be the privilege of martyrdom—to give their lives for the Lord who had given his life for them. NIGEL: The early church taught that Christians were not to seek out martyrdom, nor was it to be glamorized. RUSSELL: But neither should it be avoided, if it meant denying the faith. JANE: And there were those who decided it was better to deny their faith than to lose their lives. NIGEL: The early church father Tertullian exclaimed: “All your cruelties can accomplish nothing. Our number increases the more you destroy us. The blood of the Christians is their seed.” JANE: We don’t actually know if that was correct. Yes, it’s true, a few people did become Christians when they saw how the believers were prepared to endure horrible torture and death for their faith. But most of the population saw these executions as public entertainment and looked upon Christians as just weird and misguided. Remember, this was a society that loved its violent and bloody sports. RUSSELL: But we are probably safe in saying that if it weren’t for these persecutions the church may never have survived, and the very measures that were used to try to exterminate the new faith simply provided the very basis for its ultimate triumph.


STEVE: Jesus was a Jew, and so were his earliest disciples. Thus, Christianity started off as a sect within Judaism. But the radical teachings of the “Followers of the way,” as they were first called, caused deep division and hostilities. The followers of Jesus made no effort to be subtle. They proclaimed Him to be the promised Jewish Messiah, and they regarded themselves as the new Israel, indeed, the true Israel. In fact, in the first three centuries it was, first and foremost, the power of Rome that threatened the survival of the small but energetic Christian movement. So, right from the beginning, becoming a Christian was a risky business, a step that almost certainly meant harsh social disapproval—and it could mean arrest, loss of property, torture, even death. Paradoxically, even as this was expected by Christians, it was unusual for the Roman Empire--unusual to have religious martyrs, because most religions were simply tolerated, and most people kept their religion in its place. Most important for Christians was the awareness that Jesus Christ had endured cruelty, insult, torture and the shameful criminal’s death of crucifixion. He had given clear warning to his first followers that to come after him as a disciple meant to bear a cross, that if they attacked the master they also would attack his servants.


(NERO 54-68) The first persecution came under the vicious and perhaps insane emperor Nero. The Great Fire of Rome swept through ten of the city’s fourteen wards in 64 AD. The rumor circulated that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. And he was even suspected of being responsible for the awful fire. Thus, Nero needed someone to deflect the blame, and he chose the Christians. The secular historian Tacitus, who had no personal sympathy for the Christians and considered their faith a “deadly superstition” gives us a report in his Annals:


RUSSELL as TACITUS: There were various attempts at a cover up. They could not extinguish the idea that behind the great fire stood Nero himself. He needed a scapegoat. So he chose a group well-known for their abominations. The Christians, followers of a deadly superstition. Those who claimed to be Christians were arrested, thousands of them. They were convicted, not so much for the crime of arson, but of hatred toward the human race. They were mocked, torn by dogs and nailed to crosses. Nero even used them as human torches to illumine his gardens. Now while these people were deserving of harsh and public punishment, one could not help but feel compassion for them. The punishment was out of all proportion to the crime. They were mercilessly destroyed to glut one man’s cruelty. (DOMITIAN 81-96) STEVE: Domitian took seriously the idea of the divinity of the emperor. He was happy to be addressed as “our Lord and God” and used the expression to refer to himself. During his reign, it was expected that citizens would offer incense to the “genius of the emperor.” But because it was cast so clearly in religious terms, Christians refused to offer the incense. This time the resulting persecution was selective and mostly confined to Asia Minor and Rome. (TRAJAN 98-117) STEVE: Trajan was a respected ruler, considered one of the best emperors. And we get a valuable and interesting insight into the life of the church during his reign from correspondence between Trajan and Pliny. Here is their interchange summarized as if it had been a personal report rather than correspondence.


RUSSELL as messenger from PLINY: My lord emperor, I bring you a message from governor Pliny, who earnestly seeks your decision on an urgent matter. NIGEL as TRAJAN: Yes, what is it specifically? MESSENGER: The governor seeks your pleasure how he should deal with Christians. TRAJAN: What has been the governor’s practice until now? MESENGER: If they acknowledge that they are Christians, he threatens them with punishment, gives them two, maybe three, chances to change their minds, and if they don’t, they are sentenced to be executed.


TRAJAN: So what is the problem? MESSENGER: The governor is concerned because of the increasing volume of cases against Christians. Many strong accusations without signature naming many Christians are now submitted. So we arrest them. If they are willing to curse Christ—for we are told that no real Christian will do that—and if they’re willing to say a prayer to the gods and worship your statue, we will let them go free. The accused are from all ages, every rank and both sexes. We have to stop them now before they get out of hand. TRAJAN: Get out of hand? MESSENGER: They want to reclaim them before their number gets too large. Already the temples are almost deserted. The religion of our ancestors is in decline. The income related to our ceremonies is shrinking. If we move now, we can stop these Christians, but the governor seeks only to act in accord with your wishes. TRAJAN: Oh, very well. Here is my reply. Commend the faithful Pliny for the way he has acted in the right course. Tell him we cannot lay down specific rules in the matter, but there is one thing. Don’t let him admit any accusations where the accuser is not himself present. MESSENGER: Yes, lord emperor. TRAJAN: And don’t go seeking out Christians. If any are accused of being Christians, then they must be convicted and punished. And also make clear: those accused of being Christians, if they deny it, if they are willing to bow down and worship our gods, then set them free.


CARSTEN THIEDE: Trajan’s letter to Pliny was an attempt to protect Christians from over-zealous procurators and governors like Pliny himself. Do not seek them out. Do not persecute them. Do not punish them unless they are proven to be criminals, criminals against the Roman state. Do not torture them. And, above all, do not follow up anonymous information. Do what is correct according to Roman law. But do not do anything beyond that. It was a kind of protection for the Christians. (HADRIAN 117-138) STEVE: Hadrian was one of the most capable of the Roman emperors, and he carried on the policy established by Trajan. Persecution was only occasional and in response to local pressure. Hadrian may even have served as a restraining influence on those zealous to have Christians attacked. A document known as the “Rescript of Hadrian” dating from around the year 125, ordered that an accuser must submit proof against the Christians before any punishment could be exercised. And accusers who brought empty and frivolous charges were to receive even greater punishment. (ANTONINUS PIUS 138-161) Antoninus Pius may have provided a degree of protection for the Christians, at least in some instances. However, it was under his reign that a martyrdom occurred that


left one of the most indelible memories in all of church history. That was the burning of the venerable 86-year-old Polycarp, a disciple of the Apostle John, in Smyrna of Asia Minor.


(MARCUS AURELIUS 161-181) Marcus Aurelius was another of the good emperors and a distinguished Stoic philosopher, but he had no use for Christianity and regarded it with contempt. Under his leadership the empire experienced a series of natural disasters—floods, fires, earthquakes, and pestilence. There was a popular outcry for Christian blood to be sacrificed to propitiate the gods. So Marcus approved a horrible persecution that occurred in the year 177 in the cities of Lyon and Vienne in southern France. NIGEL: One of their victims was Blandina. Another was the bishop of Lyon, Pothinus. He was 92 years of age. He was brutally beaten and kicked and then brought in here, where two days later he died. STEVE: Father Jean Comby is an historian at the University of Lyon.


JEAN COMBY: What does it mean to be a martyr? The word “martyr” in Greek means “witness.” A martyr is a witness for Christ. The martyr is one who follows Christ and wants to follow Him to the end and imitate Him in everything He did. The high point of martyrdom, of course, is when a Christian, because of closeness to Christ, is willing to die as Christ did in His passion, in His death, in hope of rising again with Him. It is significant that in the letter from Christians at Lyon-which tells us about the death and martyrdom of Christians at this place-they report that quite often, through the sufferings of their brothers and sisters, they saw Christ.

(SEPTIMIUS SEVERUS 202-211) STEVE: Under Septimus Severus, a further step was taken in opposition to the church. Conversion to Christianity was specifically forbidden, even though Septimius had some Christians in his own household. Another martyrdom that left a lasting impact on the church occurred during his reign. It took place in North Africa, where Perpetua, a young mother nursing her infant, and her servant Felicitas, pregnant and close to delivery, were arrested. They were then mangled by hungry beasts before a cheering crowd in the amphitheater and finally stabbed to death by soldiers. Then came another interlude of relative peace, breathing space marked by rapid expansion of the church, with thousands of new believers coming into the faith.


(DECIUS 249-251, VALERIAN 253-260) But the generation of peace and healthy growth was not to last. Under the emperors Decius and Valerian, the most ominous level of persecution thus far came with a vengeance. If before the church had been seen as an irritant and a nuisance, now it was being seen as an actual threat that had to be wiped out. Thus, we move into the period of the first official empire-wide persecution. Christians were denied the right to meet together and were threatened with death


if they did. They were even forbidden to visit their cemeteries and burial places. Their property was confiscated. The bishops were made a special target. The strategy was to cut off the leadership so the followers would fall away.


RUSSELL: All citizens were commanded to sacrifice to the gods, and proof was required that they had complied. NIGEL: Those who obeyed were given a certificate as evidence. A copy was given to the individual, and there is evidence that duplicates for verification were found at the town hall. JANE: This is all it is. It was a little certificate like this. Just like a social security card. Get one and you were safe. They discovered about forty of these in Egypt. NIGEL: Nobody knows exactly how many, but there were more martyrs under Decius and Valerian than any of the other persecutions. JANE: We need to emphasize that from the emperor’s point of view, this was not malicious tyranny or mindless cruelty. No, he would see it as efficient leadership in difficult days. A typical emperor’s reasoning might go something like this:


RUSSELL (as hypothetical emperor): The people look to me to maintain peace and prosperity. It is my responsibility to see that civic unity is preserved across the empire so that we are strong against the threat of invasion. That is why it is so very important that we expect from everyone a clear expression of loyalty, unity, and patriotism—both to me and the great office that I hold, and the gods that made us great. Now the Christians need not die. Do you hear me? I take no pleasure in their deaths. Indeed, I wish more of them were willing to join the army. If they did, we wouldn’t have to hire so many German mercenaries to fight the other Germans trying to invade us. No, I have given the Christians every opportunity to show their loyalty and devotion. I don’t need any martyrs. I don’t want any martyrs. A little certificate is all they need—and no questions asked. It is to be obtained by everyone-yes, everyone—no discrimination here.


STEVE: This first empire-wide persecution ended rather abruptly in 260 when the emperor Valerian was captured during a war with the Persians. In the general peace that followed, the churches grew rapidly in numbers, wealth and influence. Many Christians rose to important positions. And in the latter half of the third century, church buildings began to be erected. Some of them were magnificent, with gold and silver vessels for the eucharistic services. Thus, the first decades of the church’s existence, up to the year 300, saw an ebb and flow of persecution. But now came a last great wave of repression that represented nothing less than a life-and-death struggle between Christianity and paganism.



(DIOCLETIAN 284-305) NIGEL: The emperor was Diocletian. He was another of the more able emperors. He worked hard to re-establish the strength and unity of the perceptibly weakening empire. JANE: For the first twenty years of his reign, Diocletian left the Christians alone. His wife Prisca, daughter Valeria, and many of his administration were Christians or at least supportive of them. NIGEL: He appointed three assistants to rule with him: Maximiam Galerius and Constantius Chlorus. RUSSELL: But Diocletian got carried away with the idea of the divinity of the emperor, and so everyone who approached him had to do so on bended knee, forehead touching the ground. NIGEL: Paganism was tired, its appeal waning, steadily losing ground to Christianity. To halt the decline something must be done soon and decisively. JANE: This was one of those cases where a very determined woman got her way with a very susceptible man. RUSSELL: Diocletian knew the risks involved putting the Christians to the fire again, and apparently he had little stomach for it. But he was swayed otherwise. NIGEL: Remember Galerius, who was appointed by Diocletian? Well, Galerius’s mother was quite a superstitious lady and very devoted to the the gods of the mountains, in whose honor she held sacred banquets daily and served meat offered to the idols to her servants. RUSSELL: But the Christians would not partake. They fasted and prayed instead. JANE: This made her mad. So,with some persistent nagging, she pressured her son Galerius to destroy the Christians. This meant that Galerius and Diocletian met alone for extended periods during the winter of the year 302. NIGEL: No one else was admitted to their meetings so that everyone knew that something was brewing. RUSSELL: But Diocletian was hesitant, sensing that a vigorous persecution against the Christians could backfire and simply serve to strengthen them. JANE: But Galerius was by now obsessive and persisted. So Diocletian sought advice from others. He sent a soothsayer to inquire of the god Apollo. NIGEL: The advice came back against the Christians.


STEVE: This one they would call “The Great Persecution.” February 23, 303, the festival of the god Terminus, was the date chosen to commence the termination of Christianity. Edicts were published, decreeing that: Christians holding public office were to be put out;


All accusations against Christians were to be received; They were to be tortured; Their scriptures confiscated and burned; The church buildings to be destroyed; Their civil rights of Christians denied; Presidents, bishops and leaders of churches were to be arrested and compelled to sacrifice to the gods. Wild beasts, burnings, stabbings, crucifixions, the rack—all the reliable methods of torture were mercilessly employed. Many Christians gave in. Yet, many others refused. We don’t know how many, but can safely say that multiple thousands were killed or permanently maimed. And in some areas the persecution lasted eight years.


RUSSELL: It was a life and death struggle of Christianity versus paganism. Yet the carnage was so great and so ineffective that both people and rulers just seemed to sicken of this prolonged massacre. JANE: They had used all their might against an unarmed opponent that simply refused to die. And this opponent was not an outside invader trying to conquer them. No, it was just their own people trying to live in quietness. NIGEL: Tired of it all, on April 30, 311, shortly before his death, weak and diseased, none other than Galerius, the instigator, issued an Edict of Toleration. In it he declared: “Christians may exist again, and may establish their meeting houses.” And he added that because of his gracious indulgence, it was the duty of the Christians “to pray to their god for our good estate, and that of the state . . . that the commonwealth may endure on every side unharmed.”


STEVE: That was the turning point. Constantine came to the throne. Under him, in 313, the Edict of Milan was sent forth to “ . . . grant both the Christians and to all others full authority to follow whatever worship each man has desired.” In the decades that followed, Christianity would gradually become established as the official faith of the Roman Empire, and that would bring challenges and temptations of a different kind. I’m back now in the Garden of Gethsemane, and look at this. From here you’re able to see the pinnacle of the temple wall. That’s where Jesus at the beginning of His ministry, was tempted by Satan to cast himself down and be miraculously delivered. To do that would have been to build his ministry on the spectacular, on demonstrations of human power. But he chose instead to build his ministry on love, sacrifice, and service. In the generations since, the church has been faced with the same choice. And the question always is the same. Will the church follow the path of worldly power and influence, or will it say, as Jesus said to His Father in this quiet place: “Not my will but thine be done.” In our next episode, we will take a look at the outstanding examples of those in the early church who followed the way of Christ.